My friend Alison told me a story the other day about her husband and her eight year-old daughter. While on a family camping trip over the long Fourth of July weekend, little Jade asked her parents, “Why do people have sex?”
Alison and Cooper were shocked. Like so many parents, they weren’t ready for the question; even those moms and dads who prepare themselves well to talk about the subject get thrown off by the timing or wording of these first queries about sex. And as Alison told me, she and Cooper expected to have the “sex talk” with Jade when she was ten or eleven at the earliest. Not eight.
Before Alison could say anything, her husband blurted out. “People have sex because it feels good.”
“Oh”, Jade said, and went back to eating dinner, uninterested in continuing the conversation.
Cooper was beside himself, telling Alison that he felt like an idiot for giving their daughter that answer. “I don’t know what I was thinking; it was the first thing that came into my head”, he said. His wife reassured him that they could have a more detailed conversation with Jade when she was a little bit older, but for now the answer was honest and fine. Cooper wasn’t convinced, and second-guessed himself for the rest of the family camping trip.
As I told Allie yesterday, her husband didn’t get it wrong at all. In fact, from a developmental standpoint, he gave the best one-sentence answer he could possibly have given. “Give him a high-five from me”, I said, “Coop nailed it.”
So many adults are fearful that telling kids that sex is pleasurable will simply encourage young people to have it before they are physically and emotionally ready for the consequences. Better, they imagine, to emphasize that it’s important to wait and to stress the risks. But as it turns out, centering pleasure is a great way to minimize the chances that a teen will be pressured into doing something that they don’t want to do.
When we tell girls that sex is something people do when they love each other, it sets them up to believe that sex is sacrificial. So when Jassie falls in love with Bobby, and Bobby pushes for intercourse, she’s conditioned to focus on “giving it up” for him rather than on thinking about what feels good for her. The more she’s taught that her pleasure matters, the less likely she’ll be coerced into going farther than her body is ready to go. “It’s supposed to feel good”, she may remember, “and right now, being rushed and pawed doesn’t feel good. So I want to stop.” Centering pleasure gives young women a power that centering love doesn’t.
The same is true with boys. When we teach them that sex is about feeling good, we remind them that it isn’t about “losing it.” We think of adolescent boys as hormone-addled horndogs, and many of them are. (There are some pretty damn horny teenage girls too, though we’re less comfortable acknowledging that.) But what drives so many boys to focus on having heterosexual intercourse isn’t the pursuit of pleasure for either themselves or their partners. It’s the longing to “become a man” or to “score” in a competition that’s really about winning praise and validation from other men. Pleasure becomes less important than being a “stud” in other boys’ eyes. That’s not a lot of fun.
So Cooper got it exactly right. While there are other reasons why people have sex, the desire to give and share pleasure is perhaps the most basic. And the more we center pleasure in our discussions with children, the more we equip them to say no to what hurts, what’s coerced, and what’s unwanted. And the more we empower them to say “yes” only to what feels good.
That’s the best foundation for good sex education I know.